Ethos | Being a Trustworthy Writer (YouTube Script)
Oh, how embarrassing, you’ve caught me polishing my diplomas… Well, as long as you’re here, let’s talk about ethos.
One of the enduring critiques of rhetoric is that it can be used for evil. There’s nothing about being good at persuading people that also makes you a good person. For a long time (like, at least Plato-long ago), people have worried that rhetoric is just a tool for manipulating or tricking people.
Of course, like I mentioned in our discussion on emotions, manipulating people is not the goal of rhetoric. Manipulating people the result of abusing, not using, rhetorical techniques.
But, it’s important to realize that your audience might be a little suspicious of your motives, especially when you’re writing about something important.
Because of that, then, it’s important to be aware of what you communicate about yourself when you write. The things you say and the way you say them can make a big difference in the way your audience perceives you and your character. Needless to say, it is important for you to communicate that you are a good person and not some kind of manipulating trickster.
And that’s what ethos is all about. At its most basic, ethos comes down to how you establish trust with your readers. If they are going to be persuaded by what you have to say, they’re going to have to trust you on some level.
A few years ago, I had a buddy who lived on the same floor as me. We ended up at a lot of the same events, ran into each other in the parking lot, stuff like that. He was pretty friendly, and it seemed like he always went out of his way to see how I was doing and what was going on in my life.
And you know how it is, most people are only superficially interested in other people. When you ask someone how they’re doing, any answer other than “good” or “tired” is the wrong answer: you don’t actually want to know—you’re just following the “rules” of polite society.
Anyway, this guy persuaded me that he actually cared about the answer. So you know, I had a new friend in a new town, and it seemed like things were going well.
Until he invited me to the common area at our apartment complex. Like a fool, I went down expecting play a round of pool or something. What greeted me was a multimedia presentation about some kind of multilevel marketing travel company nonsense.
“Listen man, I get to travel the world and make bank,” he said, “Doesn’t that sound awesome?”
Well, he had invested all that time into building our friendship, so I felt obligated to hear him out. After a few minutes of his spiel, I somehow ended up on the phone with his supervisor/mentor/beloved leader who wanted to review all the benefits of “working” at the company—including lots of travel.
“So what do you think, should we sign you up tonight for a sweet bonus?”
After listening to the whole pitch, I did my best to explain that I was just about halfway through college in a major that I really liked and that I had career plans and thanks for taking all this time to explain it all to me, but no. Never in a trazillion years. “Hey, that’s cool, man, but—listen, when you change your mind, would you do me a favor and contact me and not someone else?”
I thought that I had had a pretty good idea of who that guy was. He seemed like a genuine friend—and I might be throwing him under the bus a little—but I couldn’t ever relate to him in the same way after I realized that it had all been building up to a sales pitch. It suddenly all felt pretty cheap and insincere.
Suffice it to say, that is not what I mean when I’m talking about ethos. That is anti-ethos.
So, if you’re thinking about ethos in your writing, you want to be careful to avoid the mistakes of my pyramid-scheme pal. If you pretend to be one thing, and your audience finds out you’re something else entirely, you can be pretty sure that your persuasive argument is going to fall apart.
Step one in building your ethos, then, has nothing to do with the actual writing. You have to be a good person. It shouldn’t surprise you that ethos and ethics have related meanings. That means no ulterior motives, no exploiting an audience for your own purposes, no self-aggrandizing or self-indulgence. You can’t just appear trustworthy: you have to be trustworthy. You gotta have your readers’ best interest at heart. It can’t just be about looking smart or winning a debate.
Now, it isn’t in my job description to explain how to become a good person. To figure that out, you’ll have to consult whomever you consult for moral guidance.
But, if you want to talk about ways to convey your good character and trustworthiness in writing, I’m your guy!
The most obvious and frequently talked about “ethos move” is to cite good sources. It makes you seem trustworthy because it shows that you have done your homework and have evidence to back up the claims you’re making, which is always a good way to go.
But there’s more to it than just being able to quote things that support your argument. You need to cite sources that your audience will recognize as trustworthy. For academic writing, that usually means peer-reviewed journal articles—and that’s not because peer-reviewed articles are inherently the best sources. It’s just that academics understand and respect the process of peer-review and recognize the peer-reviewed article as a standard of truth in academic writing. If you want to persuade academics, then, you’ll quote from the kinds of sources that academics trust.
Or, if you were writing to a religious audience, you might try establishing your argument by quoting from religious texts instead of peer-reviewed articles: for that audience, sacred writings, not peer-review, is the standard of trustworthiness.
Whoever you’re writing to, the point is to cite sources that your audience will trust. It’s like the idea that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If your citations show that you spend time with other trustworthy writers, it will make you look more trustworthy.
Pathos and Logos
Like I’ve mentioned before, the three classical categories of rhetorical appeals are not independent and discrete. They’re all interrelated.
For example, your readers will find you more trustworthy if you display appropriate emotions in your writing. If you show sadness when writing about a tragedy, for example, you’ll be much more persuasive than if you show sarcastic irreverence. Or, if you write in a way that makes it seem like you are manipulating people’s emotions for your own benefit, you will look less trustworthy.
Or take logos: if your writing is clearly organized around clear thinking and sound judgment, you make it easier for your readers to trust you and your argument.
But, of course, the way you write—the way you put words on the page—can be one of the most important ways to show your trustworthiness to readers. To paraphrase the scholar Edwin Black, the way we use language tells our readers something important about who we are and who we think they are.
So think about your writing style: are you prone to exaggeration? Do you use a lot of big words that are more about showing off than communicating clearly? Do you use disrespectful language towards your audience or about things that are important to them?
In face to face interactions we can learn a lot about a person based on the way they move, whether or not they make eye contact, how they dress, the tone of their voice, and so on. But in writing, we only have words—so it’s crucial to choose words and write sentences that communicate your trustworthiness your readers.
They can’t see you, they don’t know about all the philanthropy work that you do on weekends, they only have your words on a page, so you can’t afford to be thoughtless about the way you use language to create a picture of yourself.
So, as a quick review, ethos is about showing your reader that you are trustworthy, and that’s something that you can demonstrate in the way you cite sources, show emotions, craft arguments, and structure sentences.